Post Classifieds

Demanding change

Remembering the Ford Hall student takeover

By Nirja Parekh
On February 10, 2009

  • Students congregate outside Ford Hall. Robert D. Farber Archives and Special Collections
  • On Jan. 8, 1969, Brandeis students took over Ford Hall to speak out against the administration's treatment of racial minorities. Above, students hold picket signs outside Ford Hall. Robert D. Farber Archives and Special Collections

The words Malcolm X University were seen on buttons distributed throughout campus. Crowds gathered as a group of students took hold of a single building, refusing to leave and chaining the doors shut.It's a scene too cinematic to be real. Yet it was reality on a winter day at Brandeis, Jan. 8, 1969, when more than 60 Brandeis students took over Ford Hall, the towering red brick building that housed the communications department, classrooms and laboratories. During the 11 days of the takeover, the students, many of whom members of the Brandeis Afro-American Organization, presented a list of 10 demands to the University's administration.

The Joseph and Clara Ford Hall was torn down in 2000 to make room for the Shapiro Campus Center, which now stands in its place. It once stood in the middle of campus.

On Jan. 22, 2009, the University Archives and Special Collections Department commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Ford Hall takeover with a "Show and Tell" event featuring University documents and photographs on display.

Prior to the takeover, racial and political tensions were already rising across the United States. Months before the event, Brandeis students proposed that the administration make several key changes to the University's treatment of minorities.

According to Prof. Gordon Fellman (SOC), a visit from a sociology professor and black student from San Francisco State University further motivated students to take action against the administration.

The professor and student spoke about their university's five-month strike, which started in November 1968 and focused on the establishment of equal opportunity education and formal ethnic studies classes.

Fellman said he believed the discussion "taunted black students . [to] take over a building" at Brandeis and enflamed already high tensions among students on campus.

The day after the talk, students took over Ford Hall to call attention to the administration's failure to change their treatment of minorities. Faculty received telegrams at their homes from then-University President Morris Abram calling for an emergency faculty meeting in Olin-Sang.

After chaining the front doors shut, the Afro-American Organization refused to leave the building until the administration fulfilled their demands.

Fellman was one of six faculty members who bypassed the locked doors and climbed into the window of Ford Hall to talk with the students occupying the building and hear their perspectives.

"[The takeover was] an amazing act of organization, defiance and triumph," Fellman said. There was a "buzz" and energy about the takeover among students, faculty and staff.

The demands included increased year-round recruitment of black students and professors, the establishment of an Afro-American Center designed by black students and the establishment of 10 full-tuition Martin Luther King Jr. scholarships for black students.

The takeover "was chaotic and [complex] . on both sides," Assistant Archivist Maggie McNeely, who researched and organized the exhibit, said, referring to the students that participated and the administration.

To represent student and administrative voices, McNeely featured numerous first-person accounts and primary sources such as student bulletins and alumni letters that reflected assenting and dissenting opinions on the takeover.

In addition, the exhibit featured many publications and flyers from the students who occupied Ford Hall and supported the takeover from outside. For example, the "Strike Daily" was produced on Jan. 15, 16 and 17, the last three days of occupation. These flyers gave readers a daily log of events, perspectives of occupiers, and support from students and professors.

Fellman donated his personal archives of the takeover to the University Archives. The Gordon Fellman Collection houses copies of FBI files and photographs from the Ford Hall event and transcripts of interviews with students and faculty that Fellman procured from the FBI through the Freedom of Information Act, which allows citizens to acquire government documents.

According to University documents released after the takeover, one week after the beginning of the Ford Hall occupation, five black students entered the Reserve Room in Goldfarb Library. The students, all women, pushed reserve books off the shelves and forced the librarian in charge at the time to walk to the front exit, where they left her before they ran away. The document said it was not clear if the incident was directly related to the Ford Hall takeover.

The images of the Reserve Room incident, with books littering the floors and aisles, are especially poignant for those familiar with the library setting, like Sherry Keen. Keen, who is currently a librarian for technical services, has been working at Brandeis for over 40 years. She was at the library when an administrator came to tell her about Ford Hall.

"It was a scary time for staff," Keen said. "One never knows what's going to happen."

Racial and political tensions plagued other university campuses as well. Harvard University experienced a student strike and building takeover over the Vietnam War in April 1969, and similar events happened a month later at Dartmouth University.

Reggie Sapp '73 reflected on the tensions of the 1970s and their relation to Brandeis.

"To understand what happened at Brandeis, you've got to understand the mood of the country at the time," Sapp said.

Sapp came to Brandeis as a part of the first class of Transitional Year Program students in 1968. He grew up on a small farm outside of Gainesville, Fla. and believes his experiences with racism showed him that with respect to people, it was "color on one side, white on the other."

At Brandeis, Sapp said students were becoming conscious of racial injustices throughout the United States. Even students uninvolved with the Afro-American Organization staged strikes in and out of classes and maintained communication with the students inside the building, he said.

In addition to the 10 demands students made, they worked to establish a campuswide strike on classes, that included all students and faculty, to support the future of marginalized black students on campus. The strike was also part of students' efforts to establish a stronger connection with the black community of Roxbury, Mass, through volunteer programs.

Sapp served as a key liaison to students and professors who didn't participate in the takeover. He described faculty, such as Profs. Bob Lange (PHYS), Maurice Stein (SOC), Morris 'Morrie' Schwartz (SOC) and Fellman as "ahead of their time . and phenomenal [in] their own stature and accomplishments."

In characterizing Brandeis after the takeover, Sapp recalls a heightened level of cultural and racial sensitivity. The intellectual environment "felt great" for Sapp, who noted how Brandeis led the way for similar movements at other universities.

"The intellectual image at Brandeis was just incredible," he said.

Fran Forman '67, a current scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center, was one of many alumni who signed a press release denouncing racism at Brandeis and extended support to the students in the Ford Hall takeover.

Forman said that what was happening at Brandeis reflected national trends at the time. Without the political and cultural chaos of that time period, she said, the United States would not be where it is today. She cited the election of President Obama as an example of the country's progress.

"In a blink of an eye," Forman said, "history changed.

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